Saturday, May 23, 2009

Stephen Burt in Boston Review - The New Thing

Robert Archambeau posted on Stephen Burt's essay in BR last week:

It took me a bit to get a copy, but now that I have, I find Stephen Burt’s essay, titled “The New Thing, or, The Object Lessons of Recent American Poetry,” tempting. (It's now been put up on the BR website: The—to reduce the thing down very far indeed—idea that the impact of Wallace Stevens, which blossomed in the late 1980s and has continued to grow (we are often considered to be in the Age of Ashbery, but I see it more as the off-shoots from the presence of Stevens) is coming to share the stage with a new, second (after an influence on the late 1950s) impact of William Carlos Williams (as streamed through the Objectivists [yes!] and more recent poets like Rae Armantrout and C.D. Wright [double yes!]). How could one not be excited by such a prospect?

Poetic movements, in their viral way, evolve and shift and sway, of course, and they also overlap and go dormant and reappear.

Here’s Burt’s description of the first group in this essay, the post-Stevens (Burt doesn't mention Stevens, by the way. That's my, perhaps hyperbolic, addition.) group:

* * *

For most of the past decade the most imitated new American poets were slippery, digressive, polyvocalic, creators of overlapping, colorful fragments. Their poems were avowedly personal, although they never retold the poets' life stories (they did not tell stories at all); the poets used, or at least mentioned, difficult ideas, especially from Continental philosophy, although they never laid out philosophical arguments (they did not lay out arguments at all). Nor did they describe concrete objects at length. Full of illogic, of associative leaps, their poems resembled dreams, performances, speeches, or pieces of music, and they were (in M.H. Abrams' famous formulation) less mirror than lamp: the poets sought to project their own experiences, in sparkling bursts of voluble utterance. Their models, among older authors, were Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, John Ashbery, perhaps Frank O'Hara; some had studied (or studied with) Jorie Graham, and many had picked up devices from the language writers of the West Coast. These poets were what I, ten years ago, called "elliptical," what other (sometimes hostile) observers called New Lyric, or "post-avant," or Third Way. Their emblematic first book was Mark Levine's Debt (1992), their emblematic magazine probably Fence (founded 1997-98); their bad poems were bad surrealism, random-seeming improvisations, or comic turns hoping only to hold an audience, whether or not they had something to say.

Their good poems were good indeed: we are going to keep reading them.

* * *

He goes on to say about them:

Almost all literary movements and moments expire in a crowd of imitators: what Hoagland called, disparagingly, "the skittery poem of our moment" may be about to slip into just that crowd. Yet Hoagland's nominee for its replacement—what he calls "narrative," especially the autobiographical sort—seems an unlikely successor. What will come next instead?

* * *

I think Burt’s right. The air has gotten pretty think in that elliptical room. That doesn’t mean it’s the end of that mode (How can it end before it even has a stable name? Alas!). There were important things found there. Some of the best poets of this tendency are going to continue to find worthy and excellent poems there. And Burt would agree with that, I’m certain. But, he’s also right in that tendencies tend to expand dramatically and then settle down to a much smaller group, to be replaced by a new expansion. So what is the next expansion? It’s a fun question.

The group he nominates (the WCW / Oppen / Armantrout / C.D. Wright strain) seems a viable candidate. Armantrout and C.D. Wright have both been gaining in stature over the past decade, so that now they’re at the point of gathering enough momentum so that we might be at the brink of a new expansionary period. I would welcome that.

He sees these poets as turning from the interiority of the (well, since this is Burt’s essay I’m talking about, I’ll go with his nomenclature) Elliptical Poets to a more world-oriented, thing-itself, vision. Likewise, by and large, the large, effusive tendencies of the Elliptical Poets, in the poets of the New Thing, get revised into a much more spare, attenuated line (picture the difference between the way a Jorie Graham poem and a Rae Armantrout poem sit on the page and in the world, and you get the idea).

And if this comes to pass, a few of the younger poets Burt names as exhibiting this tendency include Jon Woodward, Graham Foust, Heather Dubrow, Devin Johnston, Douglas Mao, Joseph Massey, Maureen McLane, Michael O'Brien , and Alissa Valles.

Here’s how he describes the mode:

* * *

The new poetry, the new thing, seeks, as Williams did, well-made, attentive, unornamented things. It is equally at home (as he was) in portraits and still lifes, in epigram and quoted speech; and it is at home (as he was not) in articulating sometimes harsh judgments, and in casting backward looks. The new poets pursue compression, compact description, humility, restricted diction, and—despite their frequent skepticism-- fidelity to a material and social world. They follow Williams's "demand" (as one critic put it) "both that poetry be faithful to the thing represented and that it be a thing in itself." They are so bound up with ideas of durable thinghood that we can name the tendency simply by capitalizing: the New Thing.

The poets of the New Thing observe scenes and people (not only, but also, themselves) with a self-subordinating concision, so much so that the term "minimalism" comes up in discussions of their work, though the false analogies to earlier movements can make the term misleading. The poets of the New Thing eschew sarcasm and tread lightly with ironies, and when they seem hard to pin down, it is because they leave space for interpretations to fit.

* * *

The essay is lengthy (close to 5,000 words), so I’ve skipped over a lot. It’s well worth it to go find a copy. If you’re patient, at some point in the future, Boston Review will put it online.

As well, a couple caveats:

First, Burt goes to some length to say that many of the poems of the Elliptical Poets are very good poems, and continue to be. As well, what he’s saying about the New Thing isn’t evaluative, but descriptive. He’s not putting these poems and poets forward as necessarily better poems. This is not a manifesto.

Second, and this is my own addition: a mode or a period in one thing historically, and quite a different thing aesthetically. What I mean is, though we often think of the Objectivists, say as a product of the 1930s, some of the best poems in that mode were written (I’m specifically thinking of Oppen here, but one could also argue the same for several others) in the 1960s. So to say that this is not the age of The New Narrative poets (which I believe was the 1980s?) or the Elliptical Poets (this last decade) or Talk Poems, etc., is not to say these poems aren’t relevant or productive. It’s just placing an X over the site of expansion.

I still stick with my own assertion that we’ve been in the age of prose-like, simile-heavy, autobiographical-sounding narratives since the early 1970s, judging from the overwhelming number of these poems being written. This is the base of what Ron Silliman terms (insert all necessary warning signs and disclaimers) the School of Quietude. While these other movements (Elliptical / Third Way / Etc.) might be sites of expansion, or even ascendant period styles, they are not the most common type of poems being written. Has it always been so? That what one says about a period is only reflective of one (and not the most common) aspect of that period? The answer seems "yes" to me. This only leaves me to wonder.


At 5/24/2009 10:35 AM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

Interesting thoughts here, and I'll definitely need to find the original Burt essay. I generally find him to be one of the most clear and useful writers on things I'd like to think about in poetry. I'm interested also in this "New Thing" expansion (I can't imagine the name will stick, or if it does it'll end up as unwieldy as the whole postmodern/post-postmodern/post-avant naming mess).

I think I feel more connection with this type of poem than with straight elliptical (and with Armantrout and particularly Wright than with Graham), and it's good to have this frame to think about the differences and similarities between the two.

Totally agree with you about the dominant mode of the moment, as well. "Prose-like, simile-heavy, autobiographical-sounding narratives" is just such an apt description, even of a number of poems I like.

Word verification: texpolds

At 5/24/2009 12:34 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


My wv is "immerses" which also fits very well.

The following is an email exchange I had with someone about this post. I’m putting it here for now to remind myself to think more about it. I’m honestly not sure if I’m right about Stevens. It really just seems to me that it was in the 80s that his reputation started ballooning. Am I a decade too early? Maybe it was really in the 90s?

If that is true, I’d have to rethink a lot of what I thought brought on the explosion of poetry in the 90s. Maybe it has more to do with Wittgenstein than it does with Stevens? But then I fall in and out of attention to questions such as this.

* * *

Comment: The idea of Stevens having a major impact in the 1980s is pure hallucination.

Me: Oh, I don't feel like I'm hallucinating (but I suppose one never does). I feel like Stevens got shut down fairly quickly after 1955, and it was in the 80s that his work started coming back. By the 90s, it exploded.

For what were all those poets in the 90s doing if not Wallace Stevens + [Ron Silliman’s] The New Sentence?

Comment: I can't think of a single poet who looked at Stevens much in the 1980s, at least none of the ones I read.

Me: Oh, you could be right about that. But what I was thinking is that it was at the end of the 80s that Stevens started to get talked about. I was a student then, and mad for his work. Maybe I'm just conflating my own experience onto what I was seeing . . . but even so, to have the poets who were to be called Elliptical by Burt to start to publish in the early 90s, I would think that the Stevens aspect of that movement must have been gaining traction before that time? Could it have been subterranean? Or does that mode really just come from Ashbery and Palmer and Hejinian? (Or somesuch?)

Again, I was young then. My experience is quite limited.

I should also add that the Stevens bit was not from Burt, that was my own shorthand for what I thought contributed to the Elliptical thing. So don't let that cloud your reading of what he is pointing at.

At 5/24/2009 2:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Comment: Ashbery -- like Creeley -- was influenced by Stevens. Palmer I'm not entirely certain about -- tho I could imagine his worst tendencies rising from that. Hejinian's language comes from a variety of places, mostly the 19th century novel (and earlier travel writing).

But CD Wright was publishing in the 1970s, Lauterbach as well, Gander by 1980. These folks aren't kids.

At 5/24/2009 2:59 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Maybe Stevens and Palmer just share Wittgenstein then, but even so, it does show that tendency was percolating under the 70s and 80s, waiting to pounce. All through the 90s, like machinery, all the young poets were saying the poet they read from the 20s generation was Stevens. I know at least some of them got a lot of it from Jorie Graham. She talked Stevens and Bishop a lot. Maybe it went backwards through Ashbery and Creeley (of course Creeley, thank you for reminding me!) to Stevens for them, but I'd still name it the Stevens line. (Even if Stevens wouldn't recognize it or find much to like in it, I imagine. Maybe the fondness for fruit in a lot of it.)

Anyway, I like Stevens, but really I only love it when it's most like Williams, when he's less "major man" and more "thing itself." In that, I rather like Burt coming along and tracing this alternate thing from WCW/Oppen/Armantrout. It is a welcome corrective to the excesses in the house of the ellipticals. It's about time Armantrout got put up there with them. Her work deserves it.

At 5/24/2009 11:50 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

Re: Stevens

The Jarman/McDowell "Reaper Essay" called "Wallace Stevens, What's He Done" appeared in 1981 and begins "To say that Wallace Stevens is the most important influence on contemporary poetry is to say nothing new."

They may not be speaking of quite the same group (their main Stevens-influenced targets are Jorie Graham, Robert Hass, and Norman Dubie, named at least twice each in the essay), but clearly the influence/reputation for Stevens was already there.

At 5/25/2009 6:37 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Hey, thank you very much for steering me to the Jarman. This is just the sort of thing I had in mind. In 1981, they were throwing Stevens out, but by 1998, he had recuperated, which is why I was thinking that the turn was well under way by the end of the 80s - especially in certain circles.

Jarman (who is very much NOT a fan of Elliptical Poetry / Ashbery/ et al) is a great example of how the thinking changed in general. It's this continual "Solving for X" quality of Stevens that I see going through Ashbery (Michael Palmer/ Jorie Graham) into the effusive inventions of the Elliptical Poets.

from The Hudson Review, reviewing Jarman’s 2002 collection of essays:

[Jarman’s] shift is nowhere more evident than in the 1998 essay that closes the book, "Solving for X: The Poetry and Prose of Wallace Stevens," which sharply contrasts the accusatory "Wallace Stevens: What's He Done?" from The Reaper's second issue.'

In the early essay, although they dutifully concede that "Stevens is a wonderful poet," Jarman and McDowell blame him for inspiring contemporary poets to write obscure, self-referential lyrics and conclude that "perhaps Stevens' most negative influence has been to create a foolish distrust of the narrative line and its linear simplicity." For The Reaper, Stevens stands as a dubious model, adept at writing poems about poetry, whom contemporary poets imitate at their peril.

In "Solving for X," on the other hand, Jarman makes a surprising turn. Although he still criticizes Stevens for lack of accessibility, calling the books after Harmonium, "and especially the long poems, an acquired taste," Jarman transforms Stevens from a dubious model into a worthy one. No longer using "narrative" as his measure of judgment, Jarman admires the gorgeous strangeness of Harmonium, "the serenity of late Stevens," and, above all, Stevens' tireless "attempt to create a new faith in poetry."

Whereas Robert Frost was sacrosanct to The Reaper - and also in Jarman's 1989 essay, "Robinson, Frost, and Jeffers and the New Narrative Poetry" - in "Solving for X" Stevens trumps Frost. In his late years, Stevens continues to extend the possibilities. There is nothing in the last poems that makes us sorry, as there is in Frost. We may feel that we have heard it before, but not as if we are reading self-parody. There is a serenity to Stevens' attempts to keep finding variables for the imagination, to keep solving for X. He unfolds the endless pleasure of metaphor, saying "It is" or "It is like," as if all experience could be found to have endless resemblances.

The Reaper found such "attempts to keep finding variables for the imagination" labyrinthine, a form of verbal play verging on narcissism. But in the 1998 essay, Jarman sees "solving for X" as a search for a metaphysics and Stevens, like the Grail knights, as a seeker who never abandons the quest: "Robert Frost believed that the attempt of poetry to say matter in terms of spirit and spirit in terms of matter was a great attempt that ultimately failed, because every metaphor eventually broke down. Frost seemed to be satisfied with that knowledge. Stevens is not." That dissatisfaction, and the willingness to keep attempting the impossible, qualifies Stevens as a religious poet despite his "long struggle with a non-fact: the existence of God," which necessitates the creation "of theology from scratch," the replacement of religion with poetry.

Jarman's shift of focus from "narrative" to "religion" enables him to see Stevens clearly, not as a questionable master guilty of seducing his apprentices away from narrative, but as the modernist poet whose project "is the richest, most sustained, most highly developed, and, finally, most relevant to our [... ] `century of disbelief."'

At 5/25/2009 8:30 AM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

While some of the difference between those two essays is surely in Jarman's own changing perspective, I think the McDowell influence on the first essay and its obsession with "narrative" shouldn't be discounted. I doubt that he would have written the second essay in 1998 or any other time.

At 5/26/2009 1:30 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Burt's essay is now online:

At 5/28/2009 11:51 AM, Blogger knott said...

your last paragraph here raises an interesting question:

how can the most prevalent style in a period not be the "period style"?

I agree with your assessment here:

"I still stick with my own assertion that we’ve been in the age of prose-like, simile-heavy, autobiographical-sounding narratives since the early 1970s, judging from the overwhelming number of these poems being written."

——assuming that's true (and i believe it is),

how can langpo / elliptical /
newthing (why not call it dingedicht)

be "period styles"——

they're period antistyles, really——

At 5/28/2009 11:53 AM, Blogger knott said...


"passing fads"——

At 5/28/2009 11:54 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I agree with you.

But I also have a question. Thinking of something like "Modernism." Was that ever a real period style? Imagism?

From looking at very old journals (well, mostly just Poetry Magazine), it certainly doesn't seem like Modernism was ever the PERIOD that it's now been described as.

So what does any of this mean? I don't know.

At 5/28/2009 11:58 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

In regards "passing fads." Oh, I don't know. All modes of art pass or morph or whatever into whatever comes next, which then passes.

I place no specific value on any mode just because it has the numbers, or, just because it doesn't. I have my own crabby criteria...

At 5/28/2009 2:59 PM, Blogger knott said...

"fad" is the wrong word . . .

but are there (i wonder), say, 30 year old poets who have spent a decade mastering their skills in the Elliptical mode, who were told (instructed), and who believed, that this was the style appropriate not just for them personally, but for the age they live in,

and who now suddenly wake up to find that they're old hat, obsolete, passe——

how long can a "style" last?

and: is
"prose-like, simile-heavy, autobiographical-sounding narrative"

a style? —or simply the norm that has obtained since roughly Wordsworth:

" . . . lustily / I dipped my oars into the silent lake, / And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat / Went heaving through the water like a swan; / When,
from behind that craggy steep till then / The horizon's bound, a huge peak, black and huge, / As if with involuntary power instinct / Upreared its head. I struck and struck again, / And growing still in stature the grim shape / Towered up between me and the stars . . ."

i would call that "prose-like, simile-heavy, autobiographical-sounding narrative"——

(how long can Burt dance out ahead of the curve, you have to admire his footwork——

At 5/28/2009 3:06 PM, Blogger knott said...

... as you probably gathered by my reaction to that Wojahn poem,

i don't hold much of an advocacy for

"prose-like, simile-heavy, autobiographical-sounding narrative"


At 5/28/2009 3:20 PM, Blogger knott said...

... are you stuck with the style you were taught in your twenties——? can you adapt to "newThing"
(whatever it is) (whenever it appears)
.... can you transform your mode to meet the moment?

is individual change possible without a paradigm shift (like the one that occurred around 1960 for many poets including Rich/Merwin/James Wright/et al)

,,, and is "Thingism" a new paradigm or another enpassant——

will YOU become a Thinger? (or think about it)

At 5/28/2009 4:00 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I really have no idea how to respond to that. Will I become a THINGER? (If you mean ME specifically.)

I don't have any idea what I "am" currently, so what I become is a shaded place. I'm guessing it is the same for most people. We mostly just do what we do (which of course gets influenced all over by context - so yeah, maybe we'll all turn into thingers [which doesn't sound half bad to me]).

I suppose something like the 1960-ish shift where Lowell and Wright (just to name two) made very conscious decisions to become something diferent, in the face of several pressures. Perhaps we are at a time where these things called "Elliptical Poets" have created a feeling in others that they must change. I don't know.

Personally, I like and read and admire WCW (and the others mentioned in the Burt essay) about as much as I read and admire those in the (what I call) Stevens strain, though in my reading life the default is most likely always going to be Ashbery, Ronk, Stevens, etc.

So I don't know. I doubt I'll ever be a poster child for any tendency, fun as that would be.

How about you?

At 5/28/2009 4:41 PM, Blogger knott said...

so the skittery ellips will continue to yellowbrick on down their now-archaic road,

while the thingies take over the fest for a while, or at least

until the gauge on the Burtometer starts to quiver and his Stevenship looks around for the next versicade to strap himself onto the front of——

At 9/01/2009 4:54 AM, Blogger Jeffrey Side said...

Is Burt's essay saying anything essentially new about the way poetry has evolved since modernism? After all the sort of poetry he cites as being new is, it seems to me, a redefinition of the mainstream empirical descriptive mode, more obviously apparent in much high-profile poetry in both the US and UK. The "new thing" seems an old thing repackaged.

At 9/01/2009 6:19 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Well, even "Make it New" was more "Make it Re-Newed" than "New," but I do think, while there is not a massive shift from aspects of Modernism going on, there is a massive shift from the kind of writing that has held the court in America for the past 30 years going on. And, while not shocking, it's still worth noting.

Personally, I'm pleased at the attention Rae Armantrout's work is getting these days. It's well deserved. In other words, I just like it.


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